I watched Skyline a few nights ago. In most respect it’s not a very good movie. It wanders without seeming to make a coherent point or go in any definite direction. Yet it’s got an amazingly good metaphor at its core. Somewhere in the middle of it, I remember thinking that I wish film-makers would stop it with weak, cheerleader-type female characters. By “cheerleader” I mean that’s what they do: they stand on the sidelines and cheer on the man, who is doing all the hard, dangerous stuff. If the woman actually gets involved she is quickly overwhelmed, and rescuing her becomes one more thing the man has to take care of.
And then I realized that Skyline was commenting on this very thing. Like I said, it doesn’t speak with a strong voice—I don’t know if it’s a problem with the acting or the editing, but it’s difficult to pick up on the theme. The theme is there, though. For once, the aliens in an alien movie are metaphors and not a convenience to justify a special effects budget. This is the kind of alien movie where you’re not sure the aliens are bad. (They aren’t; they’re completely ambivalent.)
The human characters are always wrong. They make wrong choices, their strategies fail, their instincts pull them in wrong directions. This betrayal of instincts is the first lesson laid down by the story, in the form of the irresistible light. Moreover, all of the humans are shown to be wholly involved in serving bodily instincts. Caveman-level reproductive instincts, to be more precise. Elaine is pregnant. Candice and Denise are in a competitive love triangle with Terry. Both Terry and Jerrod are depicted as desirable alpha males (for different reasons). Jerrod’s alpha-male protectiveness of Elaine and her unborn baby is the main conceit of the tale—it comes up every few minutes. These are tool-using primates, animals following their genetic imperatives. The constant error of their intellectual attempts reinforces this. Whenever they try to think their way out of a situation, they just can’t. In fact the times when Jerrod is the most effective are when he simply beats the aliens with his bare fists like a raging ape.
Their assessment of the aliens also seems to be mistaken. Oliver is the character who voices all the wrong ideas. “We’re at war,” he says. No, not really. After the nuclear attack on one of the alien motherships, Oliver declares the aliens to be “really pissed” now. Except there’s no apparent difference in the aliens’ behavior. They keep doing the same things they were doing all along. Firing a stream of 50-caliber rounds into a behemoth doesn’t provoke any special reaction. It just grunts and keeps going.
So what are the aliens doing, anyway? Here again the film makes a surprisingly clever comment. We, the audience, flunk at deciphering the aliens’ intentions just as much as the main characters do. In other words, we “think” with our animal instincts instead of our “higher brains.” At first it looks like they’re trying to exterminate everyone. This is the standard alien plot, right? Then it looks like maybe the aliens are eating people. That’s kind of confusing. It’s harder to rationally justify traveling across interstellar gulfs for a banquet, but maybe this is going to be a horror film and we’ll just have to suspend our disbelief for the sake of some old-fashioned gore. The thing is, both of these scenarios are based on extremely basic fight-or-flight analyses. We interpret the situation in terms of tooth-and-claw predation. A very body-based guess.
Then we get a closer look at the actual process of digestion and it isn’t digestion at all. Horrible, yes. Our bodies react to it with fear and horror. The aliens are yanking out people’s brains (complete with dangling spinal cord). The headless body is discarded—in one scene we can see the useless body being thrown down, into some kind of nutrient pool, where we can assume it is returned to the stuff from which it is made. The body is useless. The body, the physical support, locomotion, and reproductive system, the home of all that “lower body” instinct, is thrown away, leaving the “higher brain” (see, the brain is spatially higher than the discarded body) free of all that. Then the brain is plugged into a new body.
And that is it. That’s what the aliens are after. Take a look at their bodies. Weird, sure. Weird to us anyway, a biomechanical form with wrong-way orifices and too many eyes. Yet the alien flesh is fungible. Almost indestructible to begin with, easily rebuilt if damaged. At least some of them are capable of reactionless flight. Based on their regenerative powers we can probably assume they are immortal.
So, to ask again, what are the aliens doing, anyway? They are improving people. The final scene is fairly dismal from that perspective. It’s not a message of hope or persistence. It’s despair. It’s the idea that as we move into a hyper-technological future, perhaps a singularity of sorts, we cannot seem to leave behind our destructive, clannish animal instincts. Jerrod lashes out senselessly (animating his new body like a chest-beating simian), absurdly protecting his “territory” in an environment where his ape-man instincts have been rendered pointless.
Here is the metaphor laid out plainly: The aliens are our rational near-singularity technological selves, and the human characters are our hunter-gatherer past. Think of it as dragging an Ice Age cave dweller into 21st-century Tokyo. From the caveman’s point of view, it’s alien and terrifying. The lesson is how much of a caveman we still are, and how much we have yet to let go of.